Sunday, December 15, 2013

Old Late-Night Radio

A Facebook post I saw this morning opened the door to memory lane, and the hits just came flooding down the lane. My tuba-playing friend Tom played at the Ames (Iowa) Tuba Christmas Saturday afternoon and then had a combo gig on e-bass after that; as he headed for home in Lake City he posted that he was doing his customary thing on the way home – listening to the oldies station in Des Moines.

Now, Tom didn’t identify the station by call sign or frequency – I could have asked him – but to me, when you say oldies and Des Moines in the same sentence, you’re talking about 93.3 KIOA-FM.  This powerhouse station – radiating 82-thousand watts off an 1100 foot tower – is what broadcasters call a “C-1” station, a high-power FM that blasts a signal for miles and miles, covering a dozen or more counties.

KIOA-FM has been through more format changes than I can remember, but since the early 80’s has pretty much owned the oldies franchise in the center of Iowa.

When I was a young broadcaster, travelling with polka bands on weekend gigs, AM radio was king. FM was just beginning to come of age, and because FM transmission is essentially line-of-sight, you had to be relatively close to the tower to pick up an FM signal. It doesn’t travel farther at night, like AM signals do, skipping on the atmosphere. A 50,000 watt AM signal on the lower half of the AM band can pretty much cover half the nation at night; but even a C-1 high-power FM signal only covers a couple hundred miles at best.

In the mid-60’s to mid-70’s, travelling with John Check’s band, after the band had finished playing, packing up, and was finally rolling toward home, it was usually around 2AM. And the radio stations of choice for late-night homeward bound listening on the Check band were either WTMJ-AM  620 in Milwaukee or WHAM-AM 1180 in Rochester, New York. Those two stations played jazz late at night on weekends, and that’s what the guys in the band wanted to hear.

The guy who held forth on WTMJ-AM was John Grams, seen above interviewing Louis Armstrong, early in Grams’ career as a DJ on the station he started out with, WHBL-AM in Sheboygan.  His show on WTMJ was called “Grams on Jazz” and he played everything from Satchmo to the latest jazz hot off the presses from Blue Note, Arista, Columbia, and the other major labels who were still doing jazz releases back then. And Grams was an authority. He knew jazz inside out and backwards, and always said a few really relevant things about the songs he selected to play on his jazz show.

Here’s a shot of Grams in the massive old WTMJ-AM library (circa 1977) selecting the records he’d be playing on his show that night.

The other late-night weekend jazz DJ we loved to listen to was Harry Abraham, broadcasting his jazz show on WHAM-AM 1180 out of Rochester, NY. Because of the way AM signals are affected by atmospheric conditions, sometimes WHAM would come powering off the shore of Lake Ontario in upstate New York to blanket the nation all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and it would come in clear as a bell in Wisconsin.

Here’s a shot of Harry Abraham (love that late 60's 'fro!), who, like John Grams, knew a great deal about jazz and the musicians who made it, and shared his knowledge in succinct “intros and extros” between the jazz records. Both Grams and Abraham knew darn well they were talking to a lot of musicians travelling home from gigs, and they treated their audience with respect, never “talking down” or trying to sound too academic. It was clear they loved the music and loved sharing it, as so many musicians do.  When 1180 wouldn’t come in clear enough, you could count on hearing 620 anywhere in Wisconsin in the small hours of the morning.

As time moved forward into the later 70’s, FM radio was starting to come into its own, and more and more high-powered AM radio stations changed to a format that didn’t involve a lot of music. I was still working with the Check band until ’76 or so, and usually rode to and from gigs with three other guys my age (late 20’s) in the band: Dave Hoopman, Dick Wehner, and Don Hale – our designated driver. We frequently listened to the old WFMR-FM on the way home from gigs, if we were anywhere near the Milwaukee area.

Here’s a shot of Ron Cuzner, who did an overnight jazz program on weekends called “The Dark Side” on WFMR-FM. The call letters stood for “Wisconsin’s Fin Music Radio”, and the station played classical music all day and evening, and after midnight, Cuzner took over with “The Dark Side” and played jazz. He loved the new, roaring, powerful big-band jazz that was popular at the time – Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, Quincy Jones’ big-band stuff, Don Ellis, Maynard, stuff like that.

We would crank those tunes up all the way in Don Hale’s car, and just dig it. Cuzner had the most unusual voice and delivery; it was all very “other-world”. He didn’t call the city of license of the station “Milwaukee”; he called it “Henry’s City” (for then-mayor Henry Maier). And he left a LOT of dramatic pauses between records.  He’d play a real high-powered track from the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis big band, and when it ended, he’d leave about 15 seconds of dead air, and then say something like “It’s a quarter to three with 53 degrees in Henry’s City; music from the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin big band is straight ahead on WFMR-FM 96.5 in Henry’s City. This is The Dark Side; I’m Ron Cuzner.”

Those were the days; young and foolish, riding home with friends and great jazz, played by some memorable personalities on radio stations that pretty much don’t even exist any more.

But the trip down memory lane made them just as vivid as if it had been only last night.